Whether you are repairing a deck, building furniture, building walls, or building a new home, something that you’re always going to need is building materials. Of course, one of the most common types of building materials out there is wood, and yes, there are many different types.
What we’re here to do today is to compare two commonly used ones, MDF and solid wood.
MDF and Solid Wood: The Basics
First off, we have solid wood, which is pretty self-explanatory. It is a building material taken straight from trees. Trees are cut down, they are milled and cut into specific shapes, and then used for building.
Solid wood may or may not be pressure treated, but other than that there is nothing else done to this wood. It’s really just fresh wood that has not been broken down in any way, shape, or form. It’s like taking a chainsaw, sawing down the tree in your backyard, turning that tree into 2x4s, and using it for building.
On the other hand, we have MDF which stands for medium density fiberboard. MDF is an engineered wood product. It is made by breaking down hardwood and/or softwood residuals into wood fibers, often in something known as a defibrator. These wood fibers are then mixed with wax and resin. The mixture is then formed into panels, and high temperature and pressure are applied to press and bond it together.
MDF is similar to plywood, although it features a non-directional grain structure which is therefore ideal for cutting, machining and drilling without suffering splinters or chipping. The smooth surface of MDF is great for simple interior designs, particularly when sanding and painting are involved. It is also generally denser than plywood.
MDF vs. Solid Wood: What Are the Differences?
Now that we know what both solid wood and MDF are, it is time to figure out what the main differences between them are. Let’s figure out which of these two is right for you.
Before we get into talking about the actual building properties of these two materials, it is worth noting that only one of these materials is 100% safe to use. The fact of the matter is that solid wood really hasn’t been treated much and doesn’t contain any chemicals and is therefore completely safe to use.
MDF, on the other hand, contains various particles which, according to some sources, may cause cancer. The resin used to glue the MDF boards together contains urea-formaldehyde. When these particles come into contact with the skin or are inhaled frequently, especially over a long period of time, they may cause cancer. So, a bit of MDF is fine, but way too much in your home could pose a health hazard.
What is interesting to note is that most people assume that solid wood would be a much heavier material than MDF, but this is actually not the case. In fact, MDF actually weighs a whole lot more than solid wood. Therefore, if you’re building something that needs to be lightweight, MDF is not the best material to choose.
Weight Bearing Capabilities and Overall Strength
When it comes down to it, MDF really is not the best material, with one reason being that even though it weighs more than solid wood, it can bear less weight than solid wood. In other words, solid wood is the much stronger of the two.
Solid wood is much more impact-resistant, for one, and second, it has way more weight-bearing capabilities as well. Therefore, if you need to build something small that can bear a lot of weight, something like a good kitchen cabinet, then solid wood is a great way to go, particularly if what you need is long-lasting durability.
The simple fact of the matter is that solid wood is far stronger than MDF. Simply put, if you had a 2×4 made out of MDF, and one made of solid wood, the one made out of solid wood will let you stand on it without breaking, whereas the MDF board would snap in half without a shadow of a doubt.
When it comes to water resistance, only solid wood is going to be able to stand up to the elements. Now, what is interesting to note is that MDF boards will not warp or crack due to moisture. However, what happens to them due to moisture is actually much worse because they end up more or less disintegrating into dust.
Therefore, in no way shape or form are MDF boards designed for outdoor use that involves moisture. Solid wood, on the other hand, is susceptible to warping and cracking when it gets wet, which means that it may come misshaped over time. However, solid wood will not really absorb water, especially hardwood, and it won’t disintegrate either. Although solid wood does need to be pressure treated to be truly water-resistant, in general, solid wood is much more water-resistant than MDF.
Many people do like using MDF because it has a smooth surface that is easy to paint and therefore it is easy to achieve the appearance that you desire. However, in general, MDF doesn’t look all that nice, especially when compared to a real piece of solid wood, something like a great piece of mahogany.
There is just no beating the aesthetic quality that you get from real solid wood.
OK, so we have figured out that real solid wood is more moisture resistant. It looks better, it’s much stronger and it weighs less than MDF, but there are some downsides to consider here as well. For one, solid wood costs a lot more than MDF. If you are looking for some cost-effective furniture and cabinets, then MDF is probably the better way to go.
Sawing and Painting
Although solid wood won’t give you any problems with sawing, neither will MDF. Moreover, when it comes to painting, solid wood often needs to be treated so that paint will adhere to it. On the other hand, MDF is very smooth and ready to be painted at all times. Therefore, if you’re making some cabinets and you want them to be easy to paint, then MDF is the way to go.
The other thing to keep in mind here is that MDF, due to its smooth surface is a bit easier to clean than solid wood. Now, you can get solid wood that is easy to clean due to a special lacquer or coating that has on it. However, in general, untreated solid wood is a bit more fibrous and porous than MDF and is therefore going to be harder to clean.
Which of the Two Should You Choose for Furniture and Other Uses?
Folks, if you really want the best of the best, real and solid wood is the only way to go. Solid wood looks great, it is extremely strong, it can bear a lot of weight, it is moisture resistant, and it’s much lighter than MDF too. For this reason, if you’re building any kind of furniture that needs to bear weight, such as a table or chair, then MDF is really not an option at all.
That said, MDF is often used for things like thin doors, cabinet doors, and other such things, due to the fact that it is easy to clean and easy to paint. Having some really easy-to-clean kitchen cabinet doors can come in quite handy.
When it comes down to it, something like a kitchen cabinet is often made with both solid wood and MDF, with the shelf and the frame being made out of solid wood, and the doors being made out of MDF. The bottom line is that MDF is a fine building material if you’re looking for something cost-effective that needs to look good. That said, MDF really isn’t the best building material for anything that should be structurally sound.
For about more the uses of MDF, check this article.
Although it may cost a little bit more, our overall recommendation is that whenever possible, you should use solid wood. The bottom line is that it looks better, it’s tougher, and it’s going to last longer.